It is hard to find a more spirited supporter of Russian president Vladimir Putin than Konstantin Malofeev, the so-called “Orthodox businessman” who has been outspoken in his backing of the separatists in Ukraine.
In Mr Malofeev’s telling, Mr Putin’s accomplishments have been to crush the oligarchs, reassert the Kremlin’s authority across the country, revive the economy, bolster the Orthodox church and re-establish Russia as an independent geopolitical actor.
“Russia is not Belgium. Russia can only exist as an empire,” he told my Moscow colleagues and me earlier this year in his offices resplendent with tsarist regalia. “Putin is a historic leader. The best leader in the past 100 years.”
But when asked about whether Mr Putin had succeeded in creating a system of governance that would outlast him, the voluble Mr Malofeev expressed some uncharacteristic doubts. “Finding another Putin is very difficult. I am not sure this system can continue after Putin,” he said.
Mr Malofeev’s hesitation touches on the cardinal sin of Mr Putin’s rule that should be considered by western policymakers dealing with Moscow. Mr Putin has consolidated the Kremlin’s power by stripping all rival institutions of authority and legitimacy. Over the past 15 years, he has neutered parliament, the regional governors, the free press, the opposition and the law courts. From any longer-term perspective, the striking feature of Mr Putin’s Russia is not its strength but its alarming brittleness.
For the moment, Mr Putin may convey the impression of being the master of all he surveys, leading a resurgent Russia and intimidating her former Soviet neighbours. If anything, western debates about Russia tend to exaggerate the country’s cycles and its politicians are shivering at the prospect of a new cold war. But before long, Russia may have slipped again into a cyclical downturn, leaving the west to fret about the dangers of economic and social chaos, virulent nationalism and nuclear proliferation. A weak Russia may be even more worrying than a strong one.
It is not only Mr Putin’s political model that looks outdated. Russia’s economy appears equally threadbare. Under the strains of lower energy prices, western sanctions and massive capital flight, Russia’s economy contracted 4.6 per cent in the second quarter of 2015 compared with the same period the previous year. Real incomes are falling for the first time in Mr Putin’s rule.
The Soviet Union once vied with the US for economic supremacy; now, America’s gross domestic product using purchasing power parity is five times larger than Russia’s. If, as some suggest, we have reached “peak demand” for oil then Russia’s economy looks vulnerable given its failure to diversify. It has no new model for growth.
Underlying this economic fragility is a demographic disaster. Russia’s population has fallen to 142m, smaller than that of Bangladesh. Many of its best brains are quitting the country, or are being forced to do so. A recent Russian report into the country’s demographic trends concluded: “If the situation does not improve the country can expect problems in the economy, international competitiveness and, in a long-term perspective, geopolitics too.”
Abroad, Russia has few reliable allies. The Eurasian Union it has cobbled together to rival the EU is a palace built on sand. Moscow has made much of its partnership with China but the relationship is wildly lopsided and Beijing has been adept at exacting a high economic price for its political goodwill. In a pre-nuclear age, China would have surely annexed Siberia by now.
Russia’s projection of soft power looks no more promising in spite of the expansion of state-backed English-language media outlets. A report published this month by the Pew Research Centre into the attitudes of 45,000 people in 40 countries found that Russia and Mr Putin were held in low regard around the world. “Favourable opinion of Russia trails that of the US by a significant margin in most regions of the world,” it found. A median of 58 per cent in each country outside Russia held a negative opinion of Mr Putin.
Considering all these weaknesses, one liberal Russian friend compares Mr Putin to the monster cockroach in the children’s poem by Korney Chukovsky. For a while, the cockroach, with his ugly threats and fearsome moustache, throws all the larger animals on a picnic into a panic.
“Into the fields and woods they dash —
Terrorised by the Roach’s moustache!”
But then a sparrow swoops down and snaps up the cockroach, leaving the animals to wonder why they were ever afraid in the first place.
Mr Putin’s fate remains uncertain and Russia’s future wildly unpredictable. Calibrating a response is difficult. The west carries more weight when it is united and strong. It has surely been right to sanction Mr Putin’s regime for trampling over Ukraine’s sovereignty. It is right to bolster the defences of Nato member countries that border Russia.
But it would be rash to equate Mr Putin’s regime with Russia and reinforce it by declaring a new cold war. To the limited extent that it is possible, the west should make clear to the Russian people that it has no wish to isolate them. It should leave the door to Russia ajar in case any future leader wishes to walk back through it.